Brands Watch #BringBackOurGirls From the Sidelines

Image: Associated Press
Image: Associated Press

The abduction of nearly 300 girls by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria has created a worldwide outcry for their release that has taken the form of demonstrations and a massive Twitter campaign. The U.S. government is burning up diplomatic channels to get the girls freed. News media outlets, bloggers and some celebrities have joined the Twitter campaign; even First Lady Michelle Obama is taking part.  But where are brands in this discussion?

If you take a look at #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter, brands—apart from news media organizations—are notably absent from conversation. Why? What harm can there be in sharing a hashtag and calling for the release of girls who have been kidnapped by a bunch of thugs who don’t believe women should be educated and who regard children as a commodity to be sold? Apparently, brands believe plenty of harm can come their way if they mishandle this issue. The PR takeaway when it comes to human rights issues an social media comes down to this: proceed with extreme caution.

Supporting human rights issues is certainly a good thing for people to do on an individual basis, but for brands there can be pitfalls. If a major consumer brand gets behind a popular or well-known human rights campaign, it runs the risk of being accused of jumping on the bandwagon for selfish reasons—to drum up sales or improve the company’s own public image.

Regarding #BringBackOurGirls specifically, some international brands may be avoiding getting involved in the campaign for fear of exposing investments in countries where human trafficking is a major issue. Brands in this compromising position run the risk of being labeled hypocritical, tarnishing their public image at the point when they may have hoped to improve it.

It may not be enough to sit quietly by while the situation unfolds, either. Brands are subject to pressure from activist shareholders, board members, employees and customers to take a stand on this and other human rights issues. If a company doesn't say anything, it can be maligned for its silence as callous and uncaring.

In the wake of continual missteps by organizations on social media, brands are treading carefully with the #BringBackOur Girls hashtag and perhaps thinking first, before acting, so they don't put themselves in positions where they have to defend themselves.

Follow Richard Brownell: @RickBrownell